One Night at the Call Centre, by Chetan Bhagat

>> Thursday, July 19, 2012

TITLE: One Night at the Call Centre
AUTHOR: Chetan Bhagat

PAGES: 315

SETTING: Contemporary India
TYPE: Fiction

This is a comedy of romance and crossed lines. Six friends are selling home appliances to the US from a call centre in India. Each one has an issue with love. Call agent Sam works right beside the girl who's just dumped him. He's dating someone he can't stand, just to get over her. Esha is just short of becoming a model. Two inches, to be precise. Vroom wants to change the world. Radikha's trying to manage her mother-in-law, and hold down her job.

Tonight is Thanksgiving in America, and customers are queueing up to complain about white goods going wrong. On this night of a thousand phone calls, when life couldn't look more dismal, one unique caller gets on the line. And that call is going to change everything...

A romantic comedy of six friends kicking against the system, against their boss, and against each other. Something's got to give...
I picked this one up at random from the library shelves. The story covers one night in a call centre in India, as a group of "agents" (as they call themselves) deal with their horrible manager, threats to their jobs, romantic and domestic drama and make up their minds about what they want in life.

It was the setting that drew me in, especially since, as far as I can tell, this was written by an Indian author, originally for the Indian market. I've got several close friends back in Uruguay who work in call centres, taking calls from US clients, and they're all educated, middle-class people, for whom these are actually pretty good jobs. The attitude back home is the complete opposite to the attitude here in England (where I cringe at the casually xenophobic "and all our call centres are right here in the UK!" announcements in adverts -implying that of course, you wouldn't want to talk to a dumb foreigner who, of course, won't be able to speak English properly, anyway). I was interested to see an Indian perspective on this.

Well, it was fascinating to see. Obviously, things are exaggerated for comic effect (the manager, for instance, is hilarious, but also extremely cartoonish), but you could see the germ of truth under it all. The characters and their dramas are all really interesting, and, even though there are cultural differences in the types of issues they face, I could certainly recognise. The narration is funny and engaging, and I enjoyed most of the book enormously.

Most of the book, I said, because I was quite put off by the ending. First, there's a sudden and very jarring introduction of a woo-woo element that was completely out of place and ridiculous, a very literal deus ex machina in what was previously a slice-of-life comedy. And then, the final resolution, the big plot the call centre agents cook up to save their jobs and defeat their manager, was juvenile in the extreme. Not to mention, its portrayal of all Americans as stupid, naive, and easily tricked made me really uncomfortable, especially because I recognised that attitude in the main characters (and the writer, unfortunately) all too well. Uruguayans are convinced of that, as well. They like to see themselves as having something called "viveza criolla" (which I've seen translated as "native cunning"), which allows them to always put one over those dumb, naive people from developed countries. It's pure fantasy, of course, and in my opinion, one of the characteristics that is holding us back, since the celebration of it destroys trust and ensures nothing works properly. It was sad to see it here as well, and to see the writer swallow this concept uncontested and regurgitate it on the page.

Still, on the whole, I did enjoy reading this, and I'm glad I picked it up.



Li 20 July 2012 at 19:14  

I was intrigued - then hit your comments about the woo-woo elements and the use of a deus ex machina device... two of my pet hates! I will probably pass on this one, but you're right, the setting is intriguing.

Rosario 21 July 2012 at 08:49  

Yeah, it was really disappointing. I'm still glad I read it, though!

Neha 26 May 2014 at 16:41  

I am pretty sure that the author Chetan Bhagat must never had visited any call center and the estimation he made about call center working is utter nonsense and far from the reality. The portrait of Most of his characters are not specific to call center and can be found in any walk of life. The Information / fact about call center ethics, Training culture etc. are not hard to imagine or found. He called an average American, as lame as an 10 years old Indian kid, but my questions to Indians is "Can they expect their 70 Years old Grandmother to rip off an computer CPU and then put it back again over phone instructions? Indians are doing a great job in outsourcing however Americans are no fool and they are not at losing end…

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